How Is Mental Illness in Children Diagnosed

According to the surgeon general, approximately one out of every five children has a diagnosable mental illness.

­Children, however, are developing mentally and physically, and their behavior may be difficult to analyze. Actions such as anxiety, anger, and shyness can be a part of developmental growth or a temporary condition rather than an illness. When troubling behaviors occur over a period of time or in a way that disrupts daily life, they are considered symptoms of a disorder.

Diagnosis usually begins with a medical doctor who takes a lengthy history and examines the child to rule out physical reasons for the difficulties. Lab tests may also be done to test for side effects of medication, for allergies, or for other conditions that could produce symptoms.

If no medical reason is found for the behavior, the doctor refers the child to a psychologist or psychiatrist who treats children and adolescents. A psychologist is trained to evaluate and diagnose mental illnesses but usually treats them through counseling or behavioral therapy. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose mental illnesses and write prescriptions for medication. Often, the two will work together to provide a combination of counseling and medication. Other therapies, such as music or art, may be added to conventional treatments.

Initial diagnosis is based on reports of behavior from parents, caregivers, and teachers in order to understand how the child functions in different situations. Often a child will have a combination of two or more behaviors, such as anxiety and bedwetting.

The following disorders are common in childhood:


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Eating problems

Bathroom issues

Feelings of sadness, or moodiness

Disruptive behavior

Learning disorders, such as dyslexia

Involuntary movements, or tics

Schizophrenia, or distorted thoughts and feelings

Some disorders begin in childhood and continue into adolescence and adulthood. Others go away or improve with age, and some begin later in life. Mental illnesses are usually caused by a combination of factors that fall into four broad categories: environmental, genetic, biological, and psychological. For instance, a child who has a genetic predisposition may develop a disorder when exposed to toxins or physical abuse.

Although many parents want to avoid medication or the stigma of a mental diagnosis, the prognosis is brighter with proper treatment. If a child does not receive necessary care, the illness may continue into adulthood, creating high risk for issues such as substance abuse, antisocial behavior, or suicide. When given a correct diagnosis and treatment, outlook for a healthy life as an adult is much more positive. ­

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Note: All information on is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.